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09th Jun 2022

Depp vs Heard trial: ‘My ex would love to keep me in court forever’

Maddy Mussen

The fallout from the celebrity trial has left victims of domestic abuse scared to speak out

For Sara, watching Johnny Depp during his trial was more like reliving a memory. Everything from his posture, to his tone of voice and even the way he answered questions was eerily familiar. This is because Sara, 42, has spent several years in court with her ex-husband, who she claims abused her physically and emotionally for a decade. For the majority of these court appearances, she was shielded her from her ex behind a protective screen. Even then she could feel the self-righteousness oozing out of him. 

Johnny Depp won his defamation case in the US last week, proving that his ex-wife, Amber Heard, had maliciously damaged his reputation after she wrote an article in The Washington Post in 2018 about being a victim of abuse. He was awarded $15 million in damages. Heard was also partially successful in her counterclaim against her ex-husband, and was awarded $2 million in damages. While the gavel may have landed in a courtroom in Virginia and the currency may be in dollars, the Depp Heard trial was so widely publicised that its ripples have already reached these shores.

Amber Heard

Sara, who lives in Wales, was recently approached by the BBC about a documentary on abuse where she’d be able to tell her story. Then she was contacted by Channel 4 about a separate documentary on the same topic. “I wanted to do some good,” she says, “I wanted to speak out and make people aware.” She finally felt comfortable sharing her experience and wanted to encourage others to do the same, especially as a woman from a Muslim family – “where divorce isn’t easy,” she admits, “a lot of violence is accepted, I know you can’t say that but it is.”

Then the Depp vs Heard trial happened, and Sara, whose own court battle has lasted more than two years, changed her mind. She’s now reluctant to speak openly about her abuse for fear that her ex will sue her for defamation. “He would definitely be the sort of person that would do that,” she says. “He would love nothing more than to just keep me in court forever.”

And she’s not the only person who fears this. The lawsuit went both ways after all, with Depp and Heard both claiming the other had defamed them. Stan, who was generally more on Johnny Depp’s side throughout the trial, worries his abusive ex could punish him for speaking out about their relationship. Stan, who is from the South West of England, says that getting out and staying quiet is all he felt able to do. “Men find it hard to be believed or taken seriously,” he shares.

“When you have a court system that won’t accept a male victim, the appalling number of shelters for men – it really is stacked against you. You learn to just accept you got out alive, and be thankful for that even if it’s all you have left.”

Johnny Depp asks judge to strike 'inappropriate argument' from Heard closing statement

Stan is not wrong. In 2018, the BBC reported that there were only nine refuges available to men in the whole of the UK. In 2020, Women’s Aid confirmed that there were 269 refuges operating in England. Of course, women are statistically more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse (victims of domestic abuse crimes were 73% female in 2021), but those men who are affected appear less likely to seek support.

The problem is: all this fear generated by the Depp Heard verdict is largely legally unnecessary. “Unlike a defamation trial in the UK, which is heard by a judge, a defamation trial by jury is largely decided by who those jurors believe and trust,” says Alex McCready, top UK reputation and privacy lawyer at international law firm Vardags. In comparison, all defamation cases in the UK have to start in the High Court, which is typically the court reserved for all high profile and high-value cases. Cases are rare, with only 152 heard in 2020. They’re rarely heard by a jury, instead led by a judge – much like Depp’s previous case against UK newspaper The Sun, which he lost.

Most importantly, though, they aren’t televised, so no UK victim would have to worry about the court of public opinion that Heard faced. “The force of social media throughout this trial is something which has sparked concern for many [people]”, McCready says. “While jurors were, of course, told not to read anything, they weren’t sequestered nor were they deprived of their phones.” (Sequestration is where jurors are isolated between trial days to avoid them being corrupted by outside media coverage of the trial.)

McCready continues: “Given the immense amount of coverage, Amber’s attorney even said she believes the jury couldn’t escape the intense and lopsided social media frenzy that was surrounding the trial.” The trial’s popularity on TikTok led to Depp joining the platform, already gaining 11.4 million followers in the space of two days. In other words, it is a trial like no other – and incomparable with any normal defamation proceedings in this country.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not just the fear of legal retribution threatening to silence victims. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Johnny Depp triumphed in the court of public opinion, the court of TikTok, Facebook, Instagram – you name it. Regardless of whether you count Depp as a victim himself, Amber Heard has been trolled, harrassed, and belittled for weeks. She hasn’t just been considered incorrect, she has been deemed evil. That’s an outcome that could terrify any potential survivor into silence forever. Legally, survivors shouldn’t be any more unsafe than before after the US ruling, but the societal impact of the trial cannot be understated.

Names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of victims of domestic abuse.

Header credit: Michael Tran/FilmMagic